Emma Stone didn't spend much time in high school but the 23-year-old American has made up for it.

Her big-screen break came in 2007 with the raucous high-school comedy Superbad before graduating to the more upmarket high-school comedy Easy A. Now she's in the classroom once again, starring in one of the biggest films of the year. "I've experienced so many senior years," begins the effervescent actor, who was educated mostly at home, "which is kind of strange, seeing as I didn't actually go to high school."

The latest movie to send her back to full-time education is The Amazing Spider-Man. "All the senior years I have experienced seem to be crazy, or alcohol fuelled, or sex fuelled – or in this instance superhero fuelled." She laughs before delivering, deadpan: "That's what I'm learning about the traditional high-school experience."

In The Amazing Spider-Man she is thrown into the arms of Peter Parker, the schoolboy who becomes the superhero Spider-Man, played in the new film by the English actor Andrew Garfield. Stone, who last appeared on screen in the adaptation of The Help, stars as Gwen Stacy, Parker's first true love, and their relationship is central to the plot.

The last Spider-Man series, a trilogy directed by Sam Raimi with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, ran from 2002-2007 and earned more than $2.5 billion at the box office. The producers behind the franchise have chosen to restart the series from scratch rather than going ahead with Spider-Man 4, hoping, no doubt, that a second franchise can generate even larger revenues than the first.

"The last Spider-Man films really started with what made Spider-Man, but here we started on Peter Parker's early years," says producer Avi Arad, for many years the head of Marvel Studios. "The new film is a very different set-up, and we have an amazing love story, a new one.

"We have Gwen Stacy, and Gwen is the true love story of Peter Parker. What's unique about her is that she fell in love with Peter Parker, [whereas] Mary Jane fell in love with Spider-Man."

Mary Jane Watson played a pivotal role in the Sam Raimi films, hurtling Dunst along the path to stardom. The bubbly Stone, however, says she's not worried about stepping into Dunst's shoes as Spider-Man's on-screen belle. Stacy, after all, has her own rich heritage in the Spider-Man mythology.

"I do feel very lucky because it was Mary Jane in the last films, and this is Gwen Stacy," says Stone. Stacy, as fans will recall, appeared in 2007's Spider-Man 3 courtesy of Bryce Dallas Howard. "And Bryce played her brilliantly in that film, but it was a totally different version of Gwen so it does not feel that comparable."

Unlike Garfield, who donned his first Spider-Man costume at the age of three, Stone did not grow up on a diet of superhero comics, and has no long-standing love for Spider-Man. In fact, she says, her favourite superhero is Michael Keaton's screen version of Batman.

"Sorry if that's blasphemous," she says (it's not – Keaton was an excellent Batman), "but really the only superheroes in my life are the people around me, in terms of how they've bolstered me when I've needed it. My mum is a pretty big superhero."

Born Emily Stone on November 6, 1988 in Scottsdale, Arizona, the actor says her mother, Krista, and father, Jeff, always encouraged her to follow her own path. "My mum and dad just understood who I was, and my core, and made me never want to lie about anything, or hide anything from them," she says.

"My mum once said to me, 'You will never get into trouble for telling the truth. If you lie you will be punished.' So I could do anything and tell them the truth. They would be disappointed but I would never be punished and it made me want to not do bad things. That whole honesty-is-the-best-policy thing really worked."

Growing up with her younger brother Spencer, Stone caught the acting bug early. Her family loved to watch comedies, and Stone excelled on the school stage. During her early teens, she left high school and studied on the internet, with her parents' blessing.

"I had always known what I wanted to do and I didn't understand how learning mathematics helped," Stone says. "It didn't make sense to me so when I did leave school and I was home schooled I got to study subjects like psychology, theology and creative writing, things that facilitated my own specific interests." She appeared in several productions at the Youth Valley Theater and at the age of 15 moved to Los Angeles with her mother and started out in television, appearing in shows such as Malcolm In The Middle. Does she feel as though she has missed out through her lack of traditional education?

"With high school, no," she says. "With college, yes. In recent years I was still of college age, so I was all, 'Yeah, I'm skipping out on school,' but now that it's over, and everyone has graduated and has jobs, I'm like, 'Wait, what was college like? Was it fun?' That's something I do now wish I had experienced."

Her home schooling clearly taught her well. Stone's confidence and wit seem to far outreach her tender years and she jokes and laughs with a mostly refreshing candour. Life at home, however, didn't foster many real-life high-school crushes.

"Well, being home-schooled, I guess my first school crush was me," she says, "I'm just kidding! My first crush? I mean, it's amazing to re-live your first love, because if you go back, every other love after that is so different, because you know what it's like to have your heart broken, or to break someone's heart."

Stone's current crush, according to the gossip pages, is her Spider-Man co-star Garfield, the two apparently striking up a relationship on set. We all meet in Cancun, Mexico, where the Spider-Man press tour begins in earnest, but the couple do not acknowledge the fact they are romantically linked. They pause amid their press duties for a quick whisper here and there, but both parties manage to talk around the subject rather well.

"We had a lot of fun on set, for sure," Stone concedes. "Andrew and I pulled a couple of pranks on each other, like parking my car in front of his trailer so he couldn't get in. And then, later, he put my car on one of the soundstages with a note on it saying, 'Move your car, asshole.' It was right in the middle of the stage!

"I think we were inspired by Jonah Hill and Brad Pitt, who had just done Moneyball, and Brad is a super prankster. One of our make-up people had worked on Moneyball and she's like, 'Oh my God, you guys, you should hear about all the pranks.' But I think out pranks were a bit lame compared to what Brad Pitt does."

At one point in the day, probably urged on by the conversation about pranks, a brave journalist asks Stone, "How does it feel to be Spider-Man's girlfriend?" A pack of publicists in the corner of the room suddenly bristles. "It's been great," says Stone, quickly. "I can't complain." Her follow-up answer then references the film, and with all ambiguity gone, the publicists' hackles subside.

In the movie, her character's father, Captain Stacy, is out to get the web-slinging hero. "It is a hard road because Gwen has loyalty to her father. She has a bit of an Electra complex – probably a common occurrence, especially in a first love.

"There's something about Gwen that is kind of the ultimate damsel in distress, and I was attracted to that. I had never explored that before."

In her largely comedic output to date, Stone has played a string of independent, sharp-witted women, from Easy A to Crazy, Stupid, Love. Her latest outing in The Amazing Spider-Man, however, follows her turn as Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan in The Help as another purely dramatic turn.

After Spider-Man comes a role in the crime drama Gangster Squad, where Stone will play opposite her Crazy, Stupid, Love co-star Ryan Gosling in an ensemble also featuring Josh Brolin and Sean Penn. Was she looking to expand beyond comedy?

"I don't know that it was a conscious decision," she replies. "I had been lucky to be part of movies like Superbad and Zombieland and The House Bunny before Easy A, so there had been a lot of comedy. After Easy A I went into Crazy, Stupid, Love – which is still comedy – but then The Help and Spider-Man. It was just a different draw."

What drew Stone most to the Stacy role in The Amazing Spider-Man, however, was death. Her character suffers a tragic destiny and, as Spider-Man fans know, she might survive the first movie, but she cannot avoid her ultimate fate.

"That was the biggest draw of all," says the actor. "That's because of my lifelong obsession with mortality and death. I'm a Scorpio," she adds, helpfully (although I don't know whether that's telling), "so I'm morbidly excited to experience that as the character."

Is Stone being serious? How does her obsession with mortality and death manifest itself? "By going to places like the Morbid Anatomy Library [in Brooklyn, New York] the other day, looking at little foetal pigs in jars. I have an interest in death. Obviously not constantly, but on a daily basis.

"There's an awareness of mortality, I think, that makes you live much more presently. There's something oddly comforting about death. Not dying. Dying, I'm terrified of, but death -" She pauses. "Sorry, am I getting really serious? Come on, we're in Cancun!"

Stone might not fear death but she concedes she fears the paparazzi. "That is scary because it is personal," she says. "Like when you're trying to have a regular day, walking around in New York. That has only really become prevalent in the last few months, and it's terrifying, having middle-aged men coming after you."

The red carpet, too, she says, is "daunting and strange" and she likes to take a quick livener before she gets going. "I usually try to have like a glass of something with alcohol before I go to a red-carpet thing," she says with a smile. "Just one. I find the red carpet part is a bit bizarre, though it is kind of fun, working with a stylist and putting together a look."

Today she's wearing a smart cream and black Phillip Lim jumpsuit, but fashion is not high on the actor's list of priorities.

"I wear the same jeans every day. It's disgusting. I've got to a point where I literally wash them on and off." When asked about today's ensemble, she says, "I have to give it back in 25 minutes. My shoes are Barbara Bui, which is a great name and fun to say."

With The Amazing Spider-Man set to challenge box-office records – the 2002 Spider-Man movie set the bar high, taking $800 million at the worldwide box office – and a sequel already announced (wherein the Green Goblin will do battle with Spider-Man once again), Stone is set for an extended spell in the glare of the public eye. The paparazzi is not going away. n

The Amazing Spider-Man (12A) is in cinemas on Tuesday. Gangster Squad (tbc) is due to be released on November 9.